Innovative Teaching: Steve Zemke

By Steve Zemke, associate professor and director of Gonzaga’s Center for Design

I was a design engineer for 23 years at Bell Labs and Hewlett Packard. Both are very good firms, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to teach and so I needed a Ph.D. Now, if I do my Ph.D. on fluid mechanics, then I add one more expert in that field, which has a lot of experts already. But I thought that if I did my Ph.D. in teaching engineering, I should be able to get a position. At the time, the idea of research in engineering education was very new. So my doctoral adviser and I at the University of Idaho designed a program. I took a ‘models of teaching’ course, and a grad course in cognitive psychology. Those were probably the two most valuable courses I have ever taken. I did some reading on qualitative research methods and then I put together some studies on how to do useful research.

The idea behind the Herak Teaching Club is pretty simple. Nationally, if you talk to the leaders in engineering education, many will say we don’t need new pedagogies. We already know very effective ways to teach. But what if I want to grow learning by 50 percent? There are ways to do this. But the problem is, it takes time and effort for faculty to change their ways of teaching.

Let’s look at the pedagogies. Are they using “think, pair, share” effectively? Are they interjecting concept questions into their lectures and discussions? Are they using problem-based learning? None of these are very difficult but my starting assumption is that they take time to get good at. So you can go to a two-day conference, NETI, the National Effective Teaching Institute, and learn three or four or five new pedagogies and bring them back to campus. But people have trouble putting them to use – they are so busy getting ready for class and getting their grading done.

So, I am starting a “community of practice” of engineering faculty (inviting math and physics, too). We are getting together every week over the course of the year. The faculty will pair up or join in threesomes and pick something they are interested in. OK, I tell them – you go and use this pedagogy a few times in this fall’s classes and then come back to the group and tell us how it worked. Or if you have questions, ask the group. The real barrier is getting good faculty to become good enough at this kind of technique so that it’s natural. So for my sabbatical this year, I am turning this community of practice into a research study. My intent is to research the question: What makes a community of practice struggle or thrive?

If we discover something interesting, which likely will look obvious in hindsight, I can write a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation and move into building a network of practice, with fi ve partner schools and fi ve facilitators – and each of them will develop a community of practice on their campus. The best of all outcomes is that Gonzaga gets a reputation for excellent teaching. If we need one identity at Gonzaga, it’s that we’re an excellent teaching institution. If we’re not, we fail in our mission. We can’t claim leading-edge research as our big thing. We can’t claim huge budgets. What we do claim is this: We teach you well, and you will do well. My drive is actually egocentric. I like achieving things. And what is there to achieve in teaching other than excellence? I am driven to reach excellence. If I am going to do something, I want to do it right.

(While on sabbatical in 2012-13, Zemke also is researching ways to most effectively teach teamwork, a skill that professional engineers use every day. Zemke believes that teamwork can be broken down in important components and taught like any other skill.)